Working Class Heroes: The Black Keys' Drummer Patrick Carney Talks About the Band's Blue-collar Approach

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There’s a real intensity that comes through the Black Keys’ music, a gritty 21st update of the blues. But the duo — singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney — isn’t so intense in real life. They even appeared on The Colbert Report earlier this year to witness host Stephen Colbert have his prostate examined (Colbert was making fun of a The Today Show segment).

“We’re obviously proud of our career and our music — everyone should be if they’re artists,” says Carney. “But only a real true narcissistic freak would actually think they’re cool as shit for doing something. That’s not necessarily the case. I guess that’s the way we’ve always been. Dan and I have met a lot of real, serious legendary musicians: John Fogerty and Neil Young and those types of dudes. It’s awesome to meet them, but we nerd out the most when we meet comedians. That’s when we get the most star struck. We met Robin Williams about 10 years ago at an ACLU benefit. He was really out of his mind funny. We’ve always been into geeking out over people like him and David Cross.”

The Black Keys would’ve been just another indie rock band from Northeast Ohio if a few things hadn’t gone in their favor. First, their debut, 2002’s The Big Come Up, an album that they recorded in Carney’s basement, has some great songs on it (including the hard-driving “Ill Be Your Man,” a song that would later become the theme song to the HBO series Hung) and shows early potential. Second, the guys have great chemistry. Despite their differences (when they met in high school, Auerbach was more popular than the gangly, awkward Carney), the two have great energy on stage together, something that was evident at the first-ever show they played at the Beachland Tavern in 2002.

“What Dan and I have in common is that kind of mentality that we just wanted to do what we wanted to do,” he says. “We just ignored everything else and worked at it. I guess it’s a blue-collar thing. We didn’t expect it to turn into what it has. And we don’t feel entitled to it. I wake up thinking it will go away. One day it will.”

The band’s career turned a corner when the group released Brothers in 2010. The album’s recording sessions came on the heels of Carney’s divorce and the guys went to a barren (but famous) Alabama studio to lay down the tracks.

“We recorded that in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in a studio that was basically out of business with gear we had to bring down there,” says Carney. “We never thought in our wildest dreams that that record would go on to sell over a million copies. That’s the thing. It’s a fluke. We’ve always done things the way we’ve done them. We started working with Danger Mouse and that was different but the first record we made with him [2008’s Attack & Release] didn’t do any better than the records we made in our basement. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It’s been good have that experience.”

For its latest album, Turn Blue, the band again worked with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton. The disc suggests a sonic shift as the songs are slightly longer and delve more into psychedelic rock, something that’s always been latent in the band’s music.

“We never have formal discussions or a real solid game plan before recording,” says Carney. “ Dan and I might email him some songs we’ve been listening to. We like to go in the studio and we like to go to different studios to mix it up. Something happens when you’re in a different environment. That’s the fun part about making a record, embracing whatever X factor a studio brings. We like to make records off the cuff because we don’t know what it’s going to be even while we’re making it.”

And how is it that the band works so well with Danger Mouse, a guy known more his collaborations with hip-hop acts such as Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz?

“If you can make a Venn diagram of Dan, Brian and I, there’s a crossover point that’s pretty large,” Carney explains. “The thing we bond over is the Beatles and psychedelic rock and hip-hop. I like stuff that he hates and Dan hates stuff that I like and I like stuff that Dan hates. The thing about Brian is that we started working with him at a time when we felt like we just for the first time felt like we could come out of our basement and embrace collaborating and get inspiration from somebody else. We kind of got freaked out early on and retreated into our basement. We were looking for somebody and Brian was right there. Of all the people in the world, he’s the best guy for us.”

So what does Carney, who moved from Akron to Nashville a few years ago, miss most about his old hometown?

“I miss my friends and the people,” he says. “I miss the feeling of Northeast Ohio. There’s a feeling to Northeast Ohio just like there is in Los Angeles, especially this time of year when the air is thick as a blanket and the Browns and Cavs are about to play and the Indians are blowing it. It’s a good time to be in Cleveland.”

The Black Keys, with Cage the Elephant. 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6, Quicken Loans Arena, One Center Court, 216-420-2000,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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